Director: Christopher Nolan
By Roderick Heath
My favourite Batman movie is the one with Adam West. Perhaps it’s the retro-camp fan in me. But who doesn’t still remember the old show’s theme, or recall, with a bit of a smile, the endless variations on “Holy (whatever) Batman!” For dumbed-down Lichtenstein, the ’60s Batman was still a truly pop-art creation. It was stylish, funny, mocking, and zippy.
I’ve never really been sure what to say about what’s come along since then. Tim Burton’s films came close to pop-art with their totally created Gotham City and overinflated story and character gestures. But they were more in love with their set design than their dramatic aspects, and Burton’s lack of emotional engagement kept asserting itself in moments of cruelty that were at odds with the films’ shiny, shallow textures. Since Burton turned Bruce Wayne from a playful hipster into a dour, brooding near-psycho, Batman himself has consistently been the least interesting aspect of his own films. Burton didn’t seem able to find any love for his characters, in the way that he could embrace Ed Wood or Edward Scissorhands. Joel Schumacher’s entries were barely tolerable audiovisual assaults best watched mildly toasted.
Along came Christopher Nolan, a Brit would-be auteur with middling talent as a director and much talent as a poseur. Memento (2000), Batman Begins (2005), and The Prestige (2006) were, at least, all ambitious and “smart”, but they were also gimmicky, overlong, and lacking in depth. Despite their exertions, they, too, were disengaged films without heat, love, or real art. They were, to quote his own work, all Pledges and no Prestige, byproducts of our cleverness uber alles era.
The Dark Knight indicates that Nolan seemed aware of his missteps on Batman Begins. The story is simpler, the landscape less cluttered, the characters better drawn, the action tighter, and it tries for some genuine emotion. Aspects of the tale, like Harvey Dent’s (Aaron Eckhart) idealistic plight and Jim Gordon’s (Gary Oldman) conscientious despair, reach a pitch of operatic effort, if not result. Nolan’s new Gotham City is a normal-looking place with a minimum of CGI and silliness. The stringent, almost noir realism is refreshing at first, aiming for an aesthetic pitch that isn’t too far from Michael Mann. The trouble with this is that to a certain extent, it subtracts what’s attractive about a comic book in the first place—the colour, the invention, the defiance of reality in vivid print. Nolan attempts to transpose the surreal into the real world.
It doesn’t actually work. Batman just seems like an unnecessarily showy self-promoter in this milieu, and Dent’s eventual transformation into Two-Face presents just a scarred, scared, sorry bastard rather than one of the strip’s delightful grotesques. Here Nolan finds the limit of his ambitions—he can’t get real enough to explore Dent’s fate as tragic, but he’s turned his back on the twisted fantasy it began as. Nolan’s tone-deaf to the finer points of style and symbolic value. The dualism of Batman and the Joker, and Two-Face Dent between them fulfilling both of them, is both emphasised with the subtlety of a jackhammer, but also still feels fudged. The fact that Batman is a do-gooder who wears the apparel of traditional evil and the Joker is a villain who poses as a bringer of laughter, seems slightly too witty for this context.
One creation in Nolan’s new film, however, bridges the divide, and the catalyst for that is Heath Ledger’s inhabitation of The Joker, a figure who invents himself and plays up his own unreality. Indeed, it’s probably closer than any other version to the comic strip’s version of the character. The Joker, and Ledger’s performance within, is a piece of high-wire performance art, Dadaist in effect and nihilist in intent. It’s a brilliant idea that Ledger, who seemed to have worked himself to emotional exhaustion in conjuring it, certainly lives up to. When he inhabits the screen, there is the genuine, and genuinely exciting, feeling that anything can happen, and he is, for once, a villain of true weight to match a hero of depth. The character is wrapped in mystery—his name is never discovered and even his own story of how he gained his cut-up mouth, which he partly obscures behind make-up, keeps changing. He’s a force of pure, taunting chaos, and this charges his scenes in the film with something that has eluded all of these films until now—a note of moral urgency. Unlike Jack Nicholson’s entertaining but absurd Joker, this is a truly malevolent force, a vicious psychopath dedicated to proving that “everything burns.”
It’s a pity that the script can’t really keep up with him, as it keeps writing him out for long stretches whilst indulging Nolan’s fondness for convoluted plotting that moves with the grace and dexterity of a steamroller and his poor sense of scene structure and emotional rhythm. And the realism only goes so far. The Joker is captured (briefly) through an utterly ridiculous method. There’s stupid bits of pseudo-scientific gobbledygook involving cellphone sonar and fingerprints taken off shattered bullets that violates the film’s sheen of terse believability and lurches it into the realm of blockbuster tomfoolery. There’s one scene where a mob boss (Eric Roberts) is sitting drinking at a nightclub. Then Batman’s there, hitting people. It’s so arbitrarily staged, with such poor establishing shots, that Nolan might as well have had the cast suddenly start a break-dance battle or a dog show, and it would have made as much sense. Nolan has no ability in filming action, his sequences dissolving in blurry shots, frantic cutting, and finally, little excitement. The filmmaking in the action “climax” isn’t as tedious as that in Begins, but it still depletes the tension that Ledger’s antics so commendably earned.
It’s also a pity that Bruce Wayne and his leather-clad alter ego have been shrinking steadily to the point where he’s just a growling, mumbling chin under a hood. Christian Bale is an actor who can do anything, except, it seems, paint with black on black. Wayne is a bore. His lack of an emotional or sexual life of any substance and his moribund moodiness, render him a totally unengaging hero. Wait, oh yeah, the script reminds us that he’s not a hero; he’s a “dark knight”—whatever that means. There are some throwaway gags of Wayne the playboy’s hiding behind his gentlemanly loafing, pursuing models and ballerinas, but that’s strictly window dressing. One mildly rousing scene has Batman belt the Joker, who has broken into the fundraiser he throws for Dent and threatened Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), his ex-girlfriend. It’s a corny stunt Nolan pulls where Batman’s timely intervention and pith show up this walking spiritual void, and it’s cool. But Nolan elsewhere has no skill at melodrama, and that’s a fatal lack for what is, let’s face it, not really art, really not deep. The moral conundrums The Dark Knight puts up are shot down in a few lines of Zen wisdom by Alfred (Michael Caine). Sure, it’s deep compared to where the good guy in the bright spandex always beats the crap out of the bad guy in the black silk. The dark, moral dilemma of the finale is nearly exactly the same, and isn’t actually any more cogent, than the one faced at the end of Spider-Man, and that one was considerably better staged.
But what was the comic book anyway, other than a mishmash of Zorro, Fantomas, Arsene Lupin, with some inspiration from Sherlock Holmes and Vidocq? Is it too much to ask that some filmmaker who grasps both the comic’s essential, semi-surreal stylisation and its roots in urban noir pulp to properly balance these aspects? What’s with this high-concept pressure to explore issues of terrorism and vigilantism? Maybe it’s the only avenue in which filmmakers can explore these issues today, considering that no one goes to see films that are actually about those things. Yet it demeans both forms. After some of the hard-to-swallow plot turns and the general let-down of the last third, I’m not so persuaded that I really wanted that more than I wanted Schumacher’s incoherent psychedelia. Nolan lets his usual faults of going on too long and not being able to shoot action finally get the better of his very real efforts to make a more meaningful than usual comic book drama. Particularly in the deft, emotionally convincing perfor- mances of Gyllenhaal and Eckhart, the film gains a centre that slips away when one dies and the other goes psycho. That finally leaves Oldman holding the bag as a man trying to defend his family whilst all the freaks fight each other to stand-still.
The Dark Knight is not a bad film at all, but it’s also light years away from the instant, legitimate noir classic it’s being hailed as. It may take a new, revved-up Catwoman to drag a reaction from this Batman that doesn’t sound like he merely needs a cough lolly. l